Category Archives: Money

The tent and the temple

Last night I was reading Kester Brewin’s book Other: Loving Self, God and Neighbour in a World of Fractures, when I came across this passage:

“The temporal nature of these moments runs against the culture of permanence that runs right through the Church. We speak of eternity, of an undying body of Christ, of the constancy of our witness in stone cathedrals that appear to have been there since the dawn of time. Our unending prayers end with ‘forever and ever, Amen’; our song and liturgy hang heavy, invested with hundreds of years of history. Tradition is good. It can be a healthy momentum that carries us straight when the winds of change blow hard. But central to our tradition is the story of a man whose ministry lasted but three years. He had the choice – he could have sustained a far longer time with his followers, could have delayed his necessary death for many years. Instead, he allowed himself to be cut off. What is it then about the temporary that is to be celebrated?” (p. 143)

The moments he is speaking of are cessations in violence, are feasts, festivals, miracles and what Hakim Bey called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ such as the eighteenth century pirate utopias which flourished in the gaps between the maps and the earthly reality. To these, I think, could be added the temporary communities of radical politics, from the women’s peace camps of the 1980s through climate camps to this year’s Occupy movement. But it is only now, in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, that the two impulses of Christianity, the temporary and the permanent, have been brought into such fierce relief.

St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps, contains some of what is best about permanence: architectural splendour, music, liturgy and art, but also what is worst. When people stopped being primarily hunter-gatherers and became farmers, a new imperative arose: to enclose, control, build and preserve. As the Church became established, in both its lower and upper-case meanings, the same kind of change took place. Buildings and structures, constructed to celebrate and facilitate the work of the Gospels, began to obstruct that very work, their own requirements for maintenance overshadowing the tasks which they were meant to serve. And so we reach the state of St Paul’s today, with a board of trustees embedded at the heart of the financial industry, and an admission charge of nearly £35 for a family of four. You can imagine how it happens: each step leading logically from the one before, all for sound reasons, until we find ourselves in a barricaded glittering temple with the Gospel going on outside.

It was brave and honest for members of the clergy at St Paul’s to resign rather than allow themselves to be complicit in the state violence that will, it seems inevitably, be used by the Etonian chaps against the occupiers. But how much more would it have said if, rather than working out their notice within the cathedral, they had furnished themselves with a cheap tent and sleeping bag and joined those in the square.

I’m not Anglican-bashing: as a Catholic convert I have chosen to belong to a church with far more cathedrals, bigger bank accounts, a more rigid structure and a far more shameful history of complicity with money and power. One of the very facets of Catholicism that drew me towards it, twenty-six years ago, was its tradition. And yet within that tradition, the two thousand year-long, ragged gaudy procession of believers, those whose light shines the fiercest are those; St Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, who are most truly pilgrims and strangers, hunter-gatherers of the faith, with no place to call their own.

It’s a difficult tension to hold, and so not surprising that Rowan Williams, with his finely-tuned sense of nuance and ambiguity, has so far remained mainly silent. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. For this is an opportunity for the Church to recalibrate itself, to reset the compass of its heart. As Kester Brewin concludes his chapter:

“The beauty of TAZ is that it injects hope into these overpowering situations. The forces at work against us are huge. The powerful own the maps and have legislated for every last inch. But in the interstitial spaces, under the radar of those who would want to configure the world for their own benefit, brief festivals of hope are taking place. They are temporary flashes of light in dark places, but long after they have gone the air hangs heavy with a generous odour, and those who thought they saw something different are, in miniscule ways, penetrated by the marvellous for a second and can never quite get rid of that feeling. ‘Hush’ says the Church, leaving its petrified walls and tiptoeing mischievously toward the public square, ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (p.150)

Playing the game

I’ve been looking at Dawn Foster‘s brilliant blogs, including the excellent A Hundred and One Wankers in which she chronicles, with the help of a Google map, the precise abuse which she receives as she cycles around London.  Or did, until the ‘greatest wanker of them all’ pinched her bike outside the Beckton Asda. ( I remember the Asda when we lived there twenty-five years ago, before Beckton had an infrastructure and we walked down to Custom House to go to Mass and get the train to work.)

Anyway,  though I don’t get as much specifically sexist abuse as Dawn (probably because I look like the abusers’ mums), M and I both get our share of close shaves and moronic motorists.  On Sunday afternoon, as I was cycling to The Graan, a young boy racer overtook me, threw a glass bottle out of his window (fortunately he didn’t have a passenger who might have had a better aim) and, as it smashed on the road beside me, stuck his arm out of the window with fist clenched in triumph.

Then there was this peculiar piece in the usually emollient Irish Times, bemoaning the fact that, while drivers suffer the indignity of  ‘inappropriate speed checks on dual carriageways’, cyclists are permitted to ride about helmetless with impunity.  (Bike helmets are, by the way, thankfully not yet compulsory in Ireland.)

What is it about cyclists that inspires such disproportionate ire?  True, some are annoying, but surely not so much as white van drivers or those elderly men in hats who hog the fast motorway lanes?  Dawn Foster’s other blog (see above) and Oliver James’s book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza
which I’m currently reading, gave some possible clues.  Foster writes about the extraordinarily virulent ‘anti-scrounger’ hysteria whipped up by our nice new government with its cuddly Lib Dem accessories while James analyses the emotional distress which accompanies relative materialism (as distinct from the logical materialism that results from not having enough money to buy your next meal).  It occurs to me that it’s basically about ensuring that everyone is playing the game: clambering up the career ladder, ditto the  property one (isn’t it odd how the housing benefit screeches were directed towards the powerless tenants rather than the landlords who actually profit from extortionate rents?) and surrounding oneself with shiny bits and pieces.  And cars, owned and driven, are perfect playing pieces, being so homogenous and easily confused (it’s as hard to recognize which silver hatchback is yours in the car park as to remember whether you chose yellow or blue for the current round of Ludo).

And so anyone who doesn’t play properly (good job, owned house, new car) is consquently suspect,  however otherwise dull or unexceptional.  And that explains why, other than the token grumble, no one really minds that the bankers have conned us out of more money than we can even imagine and are continuing to do so; at least they played the game, even if they cheated.  Or, since no one is quite sure of the rules once the banker is allowed to use the whole cash supply plus whatever he invents  (imagine Monopoly with that variation) perhaps they haven’t cheated at all, just played the game really, really well.

And then I cheered myself up entirely by watching The Story Of The Weeping Camel [DVD] which reminded me that the world is full of people who have no idea about the game and for whom even my bike would be an object of fascinated humour.  Watch it, and be filled with joy (though you might weep even more than the camel).

Deja vu

I was reading yesterday about the abolition of slavery (as appropriate as anything else for New Year’s Day) and was struck by the fact that twenty million pounds was paid in ‘compensation’ to the plantation owners for the loss of their property, much to the disgust of anti-slavery campaigners and the British public. According to the rather useful website, £20m in 1833, when the Act was passed is the equivalent of £1.5 billion now if you use the RPI, around £16 billion relative to average earnings or £61 billion as the equivalent share of GDP. Ring any New Year bells?


Sorry about the long hiatus there; I was away, then spending most of my time working at home (cowardly woman doesn’t like going out when there’s ice on the pavements) and so didn’t have much to say.

I’ve finally heaved myself out of the front door and across town to our (bitterly cold) business unit. On the way back yesterday I called at Tesco, which is next to Asda, and squeezed my bike between the solid traffic. A large part of it was cars with Irish Republic plates, taking advantage of the plummeting pound despite the pleas of the Mayor of Dublin for them to do their shopping at home.

Day One: Enniskillen to Stafford (via Belfast and Liverpool)

In a way, the trip started yesterday. For reasons known to themselves, Ulsterbus have got rid of the early bus from Enniskillen to Belfast, so the only way of getting to the ferry port on time, other than spending another night away or managing to make conversation for two hours with a taxi driver, was by hiring a car. So MJ and I set out on the bus yesterday to collect a car from Belfast. We usually hire a car once every few months, and do as many as possible of the motoring-type errands that have built up since the last time. No one enjoys it particularly (except the dog, who wagged his tail in ecstasy when we got home with it yesterday afternoon) and there’s always a great collective sigh of relief when it’s safely back with the car hire firm.

We were the babies on the bus, as all the other passengers were white-haired couples taking advantage of their free bus passes. It was oddly quiet, especially as I often find myself on the bus at around four in the afternoon, with the hoydenish teenage girls, and rather reassuring. The reassurance was even odder, as I racked my brain to think of a bus-related crisis that would be defused by an ability to solve the Telegraph crossword or to bake a plateful of really well-risen scones. All the same, there it was.

In Belfast, while MJ got another bus up to the airport to collect the car, I whizzed (later modulated into a trudge) up and down Botanic Avenue, in the university district, visiting the charity shops (and post office, to send back our Eurostar tickets, q.v.). We met up outside the Hilton, or opposite the market, whichever sounds more congenial, and drove back to Enniskillen via Dungannon for a bit more thrift-shop browsing. Back at home we delivered some boxes of books to the business unit, collected a large box of other odds-and-ends, and called in at the supermarket for the great British (and Irish) institution of the “big shop”. After four years of not having a car, and bringing almost all our groceries home by bike, we’ve rather lost the knack of buying too much, but managed to half fill a trolley with lemonade, cereal, dog-food and vegetarian sausages.

I walked back from town, having failed to get Boots’ photo processing machines to recognize my jpgs as valid files, and was perplexed to find my legs aching quite badly as I walked up the last hill. It was bizarre – all I’d done, apart from a couple of miles wallking in Belfast and a few yards in Dungannon, was walk into town and back, a journey which I do virtually every day, usually in combination with ten miles’ cycling. The only difference was the two hours on the bus to Belfast, which I also regularly combine with walking, and the two more in the car going back. I’m beginning to understand why drivers are so anxious to park as close as humanly possible to their destinations. There seems to be something about sitting in a car – maybe the design of the seats? – that makes it really difficult to walk afterwards. Has anyone else noticed this?

At 6.45am this morning we were off again, calling at the Halifax cashpoint machine (the only one in Enniskillen that gives out Bank of England notes) and listening to more more financial squeaking on the car radio. Of all the fantastic explanations of the “crisis”, the only one we missed was the story of the innocent young bankers who, on their way to market, meet a plausible man who bought their cows in exchange for handfuls of magic beans. Of course, the tale has a happy ending; the government buys all the beans, which have turned out not to be magic after all, puts them all in a giant tin marked “Not For Human Consumption” and gives the bankers their cows back. After all, it wouldn’t do to shake confidence in the regulated fairy-tale cattle market. Not until the next time, anyway.

The journey to Belfast was quick and easy, suggesting that the massive scars across the countryside, showing the path of the new designated motorway, are less than absolutely necessary. In Ireland, however, north and south, the word “by-pass” is still synonymous with “panacea” and the phrase “road improvements” uttered without a hollow laugh. We reached the docks and the ferry terminal with an hour to spare before the check-in closed, and MJ, having lugged my enormous suitcase out of the boot (couldn’t take that on Ryanair without precipitating a personal banking crisis), set off around the harbour to take the car back.

It wasn’t, by any means, his only enormous contribution to the journey. Earlier this week he made a couple of heroic cycle trips across the border to collect my euro spending money, and while I’m away he’ll be single-handedly looking after the boys, dog, house and my book orders. No man is an island, and neither is a woman, especially when in motion. None of us can get anywhere without a bit of help, and in my case (pun not intended) an awful lot. So thank you again, M.

“Check-in” and “security” for the ferry isn’t quite what air travellers are accustomed to. In place of the long bad-tempered queue, the frenzied tapping at the keyboard, the suspicious questions, water confiscation and obsessive bagging of toothpaste, we get a friendly hello, a swipe of the passport, an offer of help with luggage and a nice lady who asks whether you have any alcohol. (I didn’t, so never found out whether it was an official question or whether she was just thirsty.) A passing lorry driver lifted my gargantuan suitcase on to the luggage trolley, with only a slight gasp and blanching of the features, and I joined the other passengers in what I suppose is probably called the departure lounge. It’s fine; modern, clean and bright, with a water cooler, toilets, television and machines for drinks and snacks. Not the total consumption experience of the airport; no opportunity to buy ties, knickers, wide-screen televisions or twenty-year old malt, just the sort of room you’d choose to wait in for half an hour before you get on a boat.

The minibus that took the foot passengers to the ferry has seen better days, and many of them, but we almost all fitted on, and it took us efficiently and unpretentiously on to the ship. In front of me was a middle-aged couple travelling with an elderly lady, and I had the pleasure of hearing them, when the bus came to a stop, urge her, “Come on Eileen.” No one else seemed to notice; maybe they didn’t go to so many discos in the early 1980s.

On the ferry I went for a wander around on the outside decks with my camera. No one else was there, and the crew hadn’t yet put up the chains designating staff-only areas, so I ended up in a few places I wasn’t supposed to be. I was enjoying feeling a bit like a journalist, but not an undercover one, so I conscientiously went back to the proper passenger places. I didn’t see anything gruesome, anyway, just a glimpse of an older world where things still get done without the benefit of wall-to-wall PR and focus groups.

The vegetarian option at lunch (three course, included in the ticket price) was the same as last time, rather glutinous spring rolls, but the chips were outstanding and, as always, the service courteous and efficient. I managed to find a seat overlooking the prow (it is prow, isn’t it?) – definitely more civilized than the safety instructions on the back of an airline seat.

The crossing was pretty near perfect; calm and smooth,and after lunch the sun even came out. I’ll leave the pictures to tell the story.

We were half an hour late getting in, but the foot passengers’ minibus was as swift as before (albeit with a cheery Scouse accent) and I found a couple of people going to Manchester and bludgeoned them into sharing a taxi to Lime Street Station (Mind you, they hadn’t seen the suitcase when they agreed.) At Lime Street there was an almost empty train about to leave for Birmingham and by dint of looking pathetic, I got another kind-hearted sap to help with the monstrous article. So,as at the time of writing (five to eight, a few miles north of Runcorn) things couldn’t possibly have gone much better. But don’t worry;there are nine more days, plenty of time for mystery,adventure,gloom and the good-natured exercise of schadenfreude.